Recorded in 2002 and originally available only through Saddle Creek with all proceeds going to the Nebraska AIDS Project, we now see a widespread release of Bright Eyes’ A Christmas Album. Seems like a straightforward proposition, but stop for a second and consider the extremely different meanings of “a Bright Eyes Christmas album” eleven years after the fact, particularly in light of its limited initial rollout. Is it a Bright Eyes album about Christmas, with all the attendant, splenetic Oberst-isms about familial disappointment, empty capitalism, the futility of love and abject loneliness? After all, it did arrive only months after Desaparecidos’ anti-consumerist screed Read Music / Speak Spanish.
Ah, Christmas. A time to gather with family and friends, and sing along to the hits of Roy Wood, Slade and, but of course, Sir Cliff Richard. It’s almost enough to make you wish for the cold, blustery nights of February to come along and blow all the false bonhomie away. Thankfully, there’s more to Christmas music than an urge to rock around the tree.
Eleven years ago, Conor Oberst made a Christmas album. Fans of bangs, MySpace and Dunlop trainers rejoiced in delicate, dishevelled versions of Away in a Manger, Silent Night and White Christmas – a cool substitute for all that major label tripe. But that was the early noughties; this reissue of the 11-song album – featuring a host of his indie friends such as Rilo Kiley and Tilly and the Wall – emerges in a very different climate, one in which misery pop reigns.
Originally a charity record benefiting local AIDS organizations put out by Nebraska label Saddle Creek in 2002, Bright Eyes’ A Christmas Album is given a widespread re-issue in time for the 2013 festive period. Discounting the deathless offerings we hear around this time each year from Slade and Wizzard, there’s actually a pretty decent legacy when it comes to the Christmas rock record. The Beatles maintained a tradition of releasing 7” seasonal singles throughout the 60s (“Sincere Good Wishes for Christmas and the New Year from John, Paul, George, and Ringo!”) R.E.M.
Originally issued in 2002 as a Saddle Creek store exclusive, the aptly titled Christmas Album begins with a piano, flute, ambient noise, and musical saw-driven version of "Away in a Manger," which will help weed out your basic yule jam fans who were just drawn in by the generic name, from the Bright Eyes/Conor Oberst disciples who know that the warmth of the holiday season is trumped only by its potential for melancholy. What follows is a sort of half-comforting, half-sad jamboree with Oberst and a small army of friends at his house playing through Christmas standards like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem," the latter of which, when delivered with Oberst's trademark tremble, sounds more like a lament from a filthy, near-suicidal pauper locked outside of the city's walls than it does a hymn of ecclesiastical joy. That said, the fragile, homespun, and largely insular vibe that permeates much of the album, provides a nice bit of contrast to other, less sonically humble seasonal offerings, and oddly enough, is probably more aligned with the true spirit of the season.